Both in its historical setting (a decade after the end of the French colonial presence) and in its geographical one (a neighborhood with few French speakers), the novel undercuts the hegemony of French language and French culture in this former center of French India. Most of the novel’s characters are Tamilspeakers, and both their words and the language of the narrator are regularly interspersed with untranslated Tamil words and phrases. These elements are sometimes marked off in italics, sometimes not. At times the meaning of such words and phrases is made clear through context, as in the following exchange at the beginning of the novel, when the narrator, now an adult, returns to his childhood home and is spotted by his former friends. One of them approaches him saying, “Qu’est-ce que tu as changé! Tu es devenu blanc comme un Vellakaran! Tu sens bon; tu sens la France!” Here the meaning of the Tamil word Vellakaran, or European, is clear. While Tamil words and phrases appear on nearly every page of the novel, their meaning is only rarely explained. One case occurs in the course of a discussion of the character Lourdes, the servant of the narrator’s family. Lourdes belongs to a community of Pondicherrian Creoles, a population understood to be the descendants of relationships between European men and Tamil women generations ago. More specifically, Lourdes is one of the “bas créoles,” as opposed to the “hauts créoles.” While the latter were “descendants des colons, et parlant parfaitement français,” the “bas créoles” were despised “pour leur filiation portugaise, anglaise, danoise, écossaise et hollandaise... relégués en dehors des boulevards, dans les villages des pêcheurs ou dans les bas-fonds des hors-castes.” Lourdes and other “bas créoles” are victims of what the narrator calls a “un double racisme,” perceived neither as properly Indian nor as properly white (Gautier 77). Towards the end of a long passage on Lourdes and her family history, the narrator recalls that “les Tamouls avaient l’habitude de l’appeler par des noms injurieux comme Naatakavaii (jupe sale) ou Piitasattaykarichi (semblant de blanc)” (Gautier 77, 87). This is one of the only instances in which the novel explains the meaning of the Tamil words it so frequently deploys, a move that underscores the role of language in Lourdes’ social exclusion. This unusual effort to specify the meaning of Tamil words is part of a larger pattern of attention in the novel to Lourdes’ complex social and linguistic situation. Indeed, as the narrator observes, she is a “double” victim, excluded not only from Tamil society and through the Tamil language, but also from and within French. She is the only character in the novel presented as speaking Pondicherrian Creole, a language that has received almost no scholarly attention or literary documentation outside of Gautier’s novel. According to the narrator, “c’est le language qu’elle parlait.” And yet, for Lourdes, there is no such thing as Creole, “because for her it was French “car pour elle c’était du français.” Finding her Creole/French too linguistically impure to be spoken around his francophone children, the narrator’s father forbids his servant Lourdes from speaking her language in his house. He forces her instead to speak “dans une langue qu’elle ne maîtrisait pas qui était le tamoul” (Gautier 76–77). The father’s contempt for Creoles and their language is shared by other characters. One of them, for example, mocks Lourdes by imitating her accent: “Kisamoilà? Koisadonc?” (Gautier 91). The narrator’s own attitude towards Lourdes’ language is inconsistent.
On the one hand, he seems to endorse his father’s decision “car le créole pondichérien est un français corrompu avec des mots tamouls auquel on ajoute quelques mots portugais.” He insists that Lourdes is often difficult to understand, and that her speech is full of expressions “dont seuls les créoles connaissent le sens.” At the same time, the narrator wonders if her language, a “mélange de francais et de tamoul,” wouldn’t be the ideal “lingua franca” for his family, whose members speak to each other in one or the other of these two tongues (Gautier 77). Lourdes resists her employer’s linguistic impositions as best she can, and she speaks to the narrator and his younger brother in her language whenever the father is not present. She refuses, moreover, to characterize this language as anything other than French. When her direct speech appears in the text, it is marked by a set of typical phrases and structures that the narrator identifies as Creole, such as “quoi don... rasoir don” (Gautier 77). In one of her longest passages of direct speech, Lourdes angrily objects when she overhears her employer discussing how he intends to find her a husband: “Quoi Monsieur, vous voulez me mariager? Pourquoi même don? Vous savez quel caressement j’ai pour vos enfants. Je ne me mariagerais pas avec un paya de trottevoir! D’abord, mon cousin a appelé pour moi en France. Je vais partir dans le avion et je vivrais avec un blanc Monsieur. Quel toupet don!” (Gautier 86). The passage is characteristic of Lourdes’ patterns of speech elsewhere in the novel. Although marked by some non-standard spellings and word choice, it seems by no means indecipherable. Within Le Thinnai, Lourdes’ Creole is an ambiguously translingual presence, one that appears to some characters (and sometimes to the narrator) as an independent language marking its speaker’s social exclusion, at other times as a degenerate and corrupted French, yet also as a potentially hopeful example of métissage. Lourdes herself, however, denies that she is speaking anything other than French—a French that not only is capacious enough to include the particular expressions of her community, but indeed is synonymous with just her own way of speaking. While scholars such as Kellner valorize voluntary movements from one language to another, and writers explore the possibilities of dialogue among languages within a single text, Lourdes refuses to consider herself as being in any kind of linguistic transit or dialogue at all. This refusal recalls Jacqueline Dutton’s insistence that the translingual turn will take scholars beyond obvious cases of linguistic passage and interface into questions about the identities of languages, questions that will require us to undo our monolingual assumptions. Francophone writing from South Asia offers an ideal site for this questioning.
It is not obvious why francophone literature from Pondicherry not only continues to survive into the twenty-first century, but has become, within the fiction of Madavane and Gautier, increasingly attentive to questions of identity and language in a post-colonial context. Throughout the colonial era, from the nineteenth until the mid-twentieth century, Pondicherry was not a site of francophone literary production on the scale of Bengal or Goa. Nor did texts from any of these sites explicitly thematize issues of translingualism, which nevertheless formed critical elements of their social and linguistic contexts. Making sense of this recent shift is beyond the scope of the present article; future work on contemporary francophone writing from South Asian will need to address its relationship to post-colonial literary trends from the francophone world and from other literary traditions in South Asia. What is clear, however, is the importance of different forms of translingual writing to South Asian francophone authors over the last two hundred years.The diversity of translingual practices in South Asia illustrates the need for greater clarity and precision in scholars’ use of the concept of translingualism. The choice to write in a second language, as Kellner defines translingualism, needs to be understood in the context of the values and meanings that are imagined to adhere to the chosen language, and the possibilities for producing or affirming individual and collective identities that this language seems to offer. In Bengal, English- and Bengali-speaking intellectuals chose to write in French to express their political sympathies with the French Revolution. In Goa, intellectuals likewise used French as a second language to perform their identities and values, but the content of what they were performing was entirely different. French appeared as a language of elite refinement and European identity rather than revolution. More radically, following Dutton, the recent fiction of Madavane and Gautier suggests that scholars cannot assume writers are or imagine themselves to be moving ‘between’ different languages in trajectories that conform to a monolingual vision of a world divided into discrete linguistic territories. Rather, translingualism may need to be considered as the set of practices in which the very identities of languages, from Lourdes’ Creole to standard French, are called into question.
extracted from Smith, Blake. "Translingualism in Francophone Writing from South Asia." L'Esprit Créateur 59, no. 4 (2019): 68-80